“It’s funny,” says veteran actor William Webster of his age-old – but newly named – mentoring role. “You spend so many decades always being the youngest actor around and then suddenly you graduate to old fart.”
In addition to Webster’s double duty as the doctor in A Streetcar Named Desire and Mansky in The Play’s The Thing, both being produced in repertory as part of Soulpepper Theatre’s second season ( in fact, he’ll have to run from one theatre to the next to play both roles), he’ll be taking young people under his wing as Soulpepper – one of 14 agencies – participates in the new Toronto Arts Council Foundation mentoring program. At Soulpepper, 15 youth will be paid a small daily wage to learn about the art and business of theatre.
Webster’s “old fart” phrase, conjuring up visions of Walter Brennan with a jaw full of chewin’ t’baccy, seems oddly self-applied when coming from this crisply-shirted, polished man with an immensely kind face.
But culture and civility were pillars of Bill’s upbringing as the only son of Dr and Mrs. Webster of Hamilton. After living through the chaos of World War II, the good doctor, himself a veteran, and his wife strove to make up for lost time by ensuring their son was sent to private school and had plenty of exposure to culture.
Seeing his first opera when he was seven, Webster fell in love. ” I wanted that magic,” he explains of his boyhood crush which later became a life-long love affair.
In 1962, Webster apprenticed as both a stage manager and an actor at the Stratford Festival. However, after a few walk on roles, Webster says: ” I was too nice to be an actor.”
So, instead, he pursued stage management, which took him to Broadway and back again, before he had developed enough cynicism to ask: What about me? What about my applause?
Moving back to Toronto, Webster’s first job was the now infamous production of Michael Hollingsworth’s Clear Light, closed down by the morality squad after just 13 shows. “It was a great introduction to Toronto,” says Webster, beaming.
Although off to a rocky start, Webster’s career built during the ’70s reaching a new height when he began his long association with the restless perfectionism of director Robin Phillips, whom Webster refers to as “the greatest influence of my career.”
Since that time he has toured the country from end to end, playing everything from aggressive roles, like Teach in American Buffalo, to far less monstrous ones, like Dippy the dinosaur in Jacob Two-Two productions.
And for the past 17 years, Webster has maintained a love-relationship, which, obviously, has had to be long distance. “Thank God, Bell changed its billing policies…. You have to speak to your lover at least three or four times a day, don’t you?”
When asked who is his favourite person is, Webster replies: “He is. Or my mother… or my sisters. No, no, what am I saying. He is! Of course he is!”
The Play’s The Thing opens Thu, Jul 15 at the Premiere Dance Theatre (??? Queens Quay W) and Streetcar Named Desire opens on Fri, Jul 16 at the du Maurier Theatre Centre (231 Queens Quay W). In rep with Endgame, all three Soulpepper productions run till Aug 28. Tix cost $20 to $46; call (416) 973-4000.